A Personal Diary from the Łódź Ghetto, Kept in the Margins of a Prayer Book

"3/12/1941 - My heart is burning and my body is freezing. My head is hurting beyond all reason. Why? Is all justice forsaken?"


3/12/1941 – “On the 26th of October, about 10,000 people were deported from Piatricawa Street. Around 100 Jews were reported killed, but there is talk of more. On the second day of Adar, my parents fled to Słomniki with just one coat between them. Their situation is very bad. My heart is burning and my body is freezing. My head is hurting beyond all reason. Why? Is all justice forsaken?”

As the years go by, we look back with increasingly greater difficulty to fully grasp what transpired in the ghettos of Europe. As fewer survivors live among us, first-hand, written accounts have become all the more crucial.

A prime example of this is the personal diary kept by Menachem Oppenheim in the Łódź Ghetto. Following the war, it was found among the ruins of the Ghetto. The book was donated to the National Library in the 1950s. What makes the diary truly unique is that it was written in the margins of a siddur, a Jewish prayer book. Menachem Oppenheim lived in the Ghetto from the winter of 1941 to the summer of 1944. He wrote dozens of entries in Hebrew and Yiddish on the pages of the prayer book. He utilized the margins of the pages and the space between the printed verses and paragraphs, exploiting any blank area on the pages of the prayer book. As far as we know, Oppenheim perished in Auschwitz like most Jews who managed to survive in the Łódź Ghetto until its liquidation by the Nazis at the end of August 1944.


3/8/1942 – “Two years have passed since the Jews were incarcerated in the ghetto. A loaf of bread costs sixty marks… Once again, deportation notices have been sent.”


From his diary, we learn that Menachem Oppenheim was 33 years old when he was imprisoned in the Ghetto. He was a religious Zionist, married with children. His wife and two daughters managed to escape the Ghetto just before it was locked down. Menachem worked in a carpentry shop and, at one point, was even imprisoned in the Ghetto jail.

3/10/1942 – “The deportation continues. I saw an old man and woman, who looked to be about 80 years old, pulling a handcart to the train station for their deportation… They will be dead before they reach the next stop… They are deporting people to the grave…”

The great importance of Oppenheim’s diary entries lies in his daily documentation of life in the Ghetto: working conditions, police activities, food distribution, labor, hunger, diseases, and Menachem Oppenheim’s reflections on the effect of Ghetto life on himself and his friends, which were somewhere between hope and despair, between illusion and disappointment. The diary also contains a specific record of religious life in the Ghetto and tells of how the Jews attempted to observe the holidays, what they ate on Passover, and how they prayed to God while dwelling in the hellish surroundings they found themselves in.


4/9/1942 – “Passover 5702.  In the Ghetto there is great hunger. Only rye matzah, watery soup, and beetroot… Because of the nagging hunger, many people ate bread and so did I. The Passover Seder was prepared with only matzah and black coffee… This is my third Passover without my family. And in Passover 1942 I ate chametz for the first time…”


Oppenheim was a gifted literary talent. His writing is beautiful and eloquent. He was probably a person with a broad education and a cultural outlook. As noted, Menachem Oppenheim evidently perished at Auschwitz. The fate of his wife and two daughters is unknown. His diary resurfaced in the 1950s in a Jerusalem bookstore. The Sephardic Derech Ha-Hayim prayer book came to the attention of biblical scholar, Professor Mordechai Zer Kavod (Ehrenkranz), who translated the personal diary within the prayer book from Yiddish before donating it to the National Library.

3/19/1942 – “After an eight week hiatus, I received 2 kilograms of wild carrots and 1 kilogram of carrots on the family register.”

Menachem Oppenheim’s diary is one item from a very large collection of manuscripts that were donated to the National Library in the wake of the Holocaust and World War II.

View Menachem Oppenheim’s entire personal diary



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Double-Crossed by Eichmann: New Lists from the Kasztner Train Revealed

Rudolf Israel Kasztner negotiated with Adolf Eichmann directly to transport nearly 1,700 Jews from Hungary to Switzerland.

רכבת קסטנר

Kasztner train passengers, travelling from Budapest, via the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, to Switzerland, August or December 1944

When the atrocities of the Holocaust began to unfold, many attempts were made by both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations and individuals to influence and bribe powerful officials in the hopes of sparing as many human lives from the fate that awaited them at the hands of the Nazis. In 1944, the efforts of one man bore fruit and, while the number of those rescued was small in comparison to the number of Jews in danger, those who were included were spared the gruesome deaths that claimed so many others.

Rudolf (Rezső) Israel Kasztner was a Jewish Hungarian journalist and lawyer who helped found the Relief and Rescue Committee in Budapest that worked to smuggle Jewish refugees from Poland and Slovakia into Hungary in the hopes of escaping the Nazis. With the German invasion of Hungary in 1944, the Committee refocused its efforts to negotiations with the Nazis – in the hopes of exchanging human lives for military supplies and trucks. This effort came to be known as “Blood for Goods.”

Rudolf (Rezső) Israel Kasztner

In the summer of 1944, as a part of his efforts, Kasztner met repeatedly with Adolf Eichmann who was charged with deporting Hungary’s Jews. In late June, Kasztner succeeded in convincing Eichmann to spare the lives of some 1,700 Jews. Kasztner, along with a committee of other prominent Jews, drew up the list of those to be included in a transport that would leave Hungary for the safety of the neutral state of Switzerland.

On June 30, 1944, 1,684 Jews boarded a transport that was dubbed “Noah’s Ark.” The group was largely Hungarian and consisted mostly of Jews of prominence – those with money and influence – and close acquaintances of Rudolf Kasztner, including his family, friends and many people from his hometown of Cluj (Transylvania). This fact eventually brought tremendous backlash on Kasztner following the war.


רכבת קסטנר
A page from the list of the 318 who boarded the transport to Switzerland. Image courtesy of the Central Archives of the History of the Jewish People. View the digitized list here.

Unsurprisingly, Eichmann did not stay true to his word and instead of arriving in Switzerland, the transport stopped at Bergen-Belsen where the passengers were detained. A month later, following a new round of intensive negotiations, a new list containing the names of 318 people from among the original passengers was issued and those fortunate enough to be included boarded a new transport for Switzerland in late August 1944. It was only on December 7, 1944, that the remaining 1,354 passengers were released from Bergen-Belsen and sent to their original destination.

These never before published lists of the two transports which departed from Bergen-Belsen were given to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People by Rabbi David Moses Rosen. Rabbi Rosen served as the Chief Rabbi of Romania during the Communist period. A copy of the lists was kept by the Bucharest office of the Romanian branch of the World Jewish Congress, along with additional important documentation of Romanian and Transylvanian Jewry from the Holocaust period. A significant portion of the branch’s archive was eventually passed on by Rabbi Rosen to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, where it was recently reregistered by Dr. Miriam Caloianu, who is in charge of the Romania collection in the archives. Among other things, this collection includes important evidence regarding the survivors of the camps in Transnistria, in Northern Transylvania and the Iași pogrom.


רכבת קסטנר
This page from the list of the transport of 1,354 includes the name of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, founder and first Grand Rebbe of the Satmar dynasty. Image courtesy of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. View the digitized list here.

In contrast to lists published in the past which revealed the early stages of this process and the original transport, these lists reveal the names of those who arrived at their intended destination and even include the Swiss addresses of the passengers’ new homes. Included on these lists are the names of Kasztner’s family members and the name of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, founder and first Grand Rebbe of the Satmar dynasty.

These lists not only attest to the tremendous efforts made by Jewish communities and organizations to rescue their brethren, they are also critical in properly understanding the full unfolding of these events, shedding new light on the plight of the Jewish community of Hungary which saw over 400,000 perish in the Holocaust.

רכבת קסטנר
This page from the list of the transport of 1,354 includes the names of the Kasztner family members. Image courtesy of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. View the digitized list here.

Following the war, Kasztner immigrated to the Land of Israel. In 1953, his negotiations with the Nazis in general and Eichmann, in particular, made headlines when a journalist named Malchiel Gruenwald published a pamphlet accusing Kasztner of being a Nazi collaborator, stating that he negotiated for his own personal benefit and contributed to the destruction of Hungarian Jewry. Kasztner sued Gruenwald for libel, an act that eventually transformed these accusations into an indictment. The presiding judge determined that Kasztner had in fact contributed to the destruction of Hungarian Jewry by selecting his friends, family, and acquaintances as those who would be spared from horrors of the gas chambers.

This decision was overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court in January of 1958, however, before the new decision could be announced, Kasztner was assassinated near his home in Tel Aviv on the night of March 4, 1957. He died of his wounds twelve days later.

The lists from the Kasztner Train have been digitized and can be viewed online here.  


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From a Jewish Haven in Vienna to the Death Marches of the Holocaust

It was only when Leo saw the smoke from the crematorium that he understood that he would never see his father again.


Moshe and Golda Luster, 1942. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

Before the First World War, Vienna, the seat of the old Habsburg dynasty, was the capital of a great multi-ethnic empire brimming with culture, art, and history. It’s where more than 175,000 Jews lived including textile salesman Moshe Luster and his wife Golda.

Moshe and Golda were married in Vienna in 1919 and in 1921, their first child, Helli, was born. Six years later, their son, Leo joined the family. The Lusters lived, like many other Jewish families, in Vienna’s second district, on 12 Schreygasse Street which was a Jewish world of its own. The children attended a religious school and the family attended the local synagogue on Shabbat and holidays. The Lusters enjoyed the cultural experiences Vienna had to offer and particularly loved going to the theatre together to watch the comedic films of the era. But as the years went by, the Lusters learned that the Jews had nothing to laugh about.

Moses and Golda Luster’s wedding photo. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

Friday, March 11, 1938.

Moshe and Leo Luster were in the synagogue for traditional Shabbat prayers. On their way home, a neighbor stopped Moshe on the street and said, “Mr. Luster, something terrible has happened. Chancellor Schuschnigg (Chancellor of the Federal State of Austria) has resigned.” Moshe Luster knew at once: this was the beginning of the end.

Leo Luster
Leo Luster, 1935. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

The Austrian military had been instructed not to resist and the next day the Germans marched on Austria. The Viennese public quickly took up the cause and began wearing swastika armbands. Soon after, the Jews of Austria became a hunted minority. The beautiful multi-ethnic metropolis that was Vienna ceased to exist as the Nazi party took over the country and occupied all government functions.

The country’s Jews, including Moshe Luster, lost their jobs, their apartments, and their dignity. Eight months after the initial invasion of the Germans, the pogrom of Kristallnacht brought out the worst in a nation that had once been so accepting.

Moshe, Golda, and their children watched as their Viennese neighbors rioted.

They stood helplessly by as they burned synagogues and destroyed Jewish shops.

Thousands of Jewish men were arrested – Moshe was among them.

He was eventually released by the Nazis but was given strict orders not to speak of the horrors he experienced at the hands of his imprisoners or risk further trouble.

From December of 1938, the Jews were segregated from the rest of the city. Jewish children were required to attend separate schools and were not allowed to play in public parks. The Jewish community found the only solution available – they opened the Jewish cemetery as new playgrounds for the local children.

With their synagogue lying in ruins, the Luster family was forced to hold Leo’s bar mitzvah quietly in the family home, with the curtains drawn tight.

Jews began frantically fleeing Vienna, taking refuge wherever it was offered. Moshe managed to get Helli out of the country and sent her on her way to the Land of Israel. Leo and his parents were not so lucky.

On 24 September 1942, the Nazis deported Moshe, Golda, and Leo from Vienna. Leo was just 15 years old when he was forced into a crowded train car for the two-day journey to Theresienstadt

Postcard with a photo of Terezín before it became a Jewish ghetto. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

Terezín was originally built by Emperor Joseph II as a fortress in the 1780s, and after 1918, it was used by the Czechoslovakian army. The Nazis turned it into the Jewish ghetto of Theresienstadt and filled it with tens of thousands of people forced to live in squalor.

Leo was put to work in the kitchens. While the work was labor intensive, he was grateful to have enough to eat. Sometimes the youth was even able to smuggle rations out of the kitchen to his parents. Leo would watch as people were hauled out of the Ghetto in train car after train car. On September 28th, 1944, Leo, Moshe, and 2,500 others were added to the transport list.  Golda was left behind to fend with fates unknown.

Postcard of Theresienstadt. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

Moshe and Leo spent two days traveling in a cramped cattle car. The train stopped suddenly in the middle of the night and the men were forced out of the car into a brightly lit area surrounded by electric fences where they were stripped of all their belongings. One by one they were forced to stand in front of an SS officer.

“What is your profession,” the officer asked Leo.

He wisely answered, “electrician.”

Leo was sent to one side, Moshe to the other. It was only a few hours later, when he saw the fires from the crematorium, that he understood that he would never see his father again.

Three weeks later, Leo was sent to a labor camp in Gliwice where he was forced to repair train cars. A few weeks later, on January 18, 1945, the SS officers gathered their prisoners and forced them to march through the terrible conditions of the dead of winter, barefoot and in tattered clothing. Those who could not go on were shot and left for dead.

Finally, they stopped marching. They had arrived at a camp called Blechhammer. The SS officers locked their prisoners in the barracks and set fire to the buildings. Those who tried to escape were shot. But Leo managed to hide and avoid the inferno that claimed the lives of his fellow prisoners.

After some time, Leo dared to sneak out of his hiding space. The Nazis were gone and Leo set off, walking along the street that led out of the camp in search of help. He came upon a group of trucks with red stars on their hoods. A Russian soldier approached him and Leo shouted out in Yiddish: “Yid, ja. Yid, Yid.” – I am a Jew.

The soldier looked at him and said, “Ja tosche Yid.” – I too am a Jew.

Leo Luster in Katowice with Polish and Russian soldiers in 1945. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

Leo guided the soldiers back to the smoldering ruins of the camp. The soldiers gave the surviving Jews food and water and cared for them. A few weeks later they made their way to Krakow, where they received identification documents from the Red Cross.

One day, a Russian officer turned to Leo and said, “The war is over, you can go wherever you want.”

Leo had but one mission in mind: to find out what became of his poor, beloved mother Golda who had been left behind to fend for herself.  He set out on his journey to Theresienstadt. He traveled by train and through the kindness of others who were willing to pick up a refugee hitchhiker. He arrived in the newly liberated Ghetto and immediately sought out those who would have information on Golda’s whereabouts.

Leo found Golda hiding in a tiny attic.

“Where is your father?” she asked.

For more on the story of Leo Luster, please visit the Centropa website.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.


Learning the Value of a Potato in the Holocaust

Sensing the dangerous sparks in the air, Miriam smuggled her family to Russia where they were forced to fend for themselves in a Siberian labor camp.

Hecht family

משפחת העכט (פירר) אחרי שהגיעו בשלום לניו יורק. משמאל נראים מרים וישרואל. יחיאל בשורהה העליונה, לצידה של מרים. באדיבות רו אורנים

We don’t know how old my grandfather was when he died in 2014.

He did not remember his birthdate and his birth certificate was destroyed along with everything else during the war. All he remembered was that it was warm out during his birthday celebrations as a child and that the celebrations always took place during the week when the Torah Portion of Bereshit would be read after the Jewish New Year. These memories seem to contradict – especially if you have ever examined the weather patterns in Poland.

Yechiel Hecht, my grandfather, was born to a religious Jewish family in Tsanz, Poland. His family moved to the town of Zagosh where his father, Yisroel Hecht-Firer, served as a well-respected community rabbi and worked as a Shochet, a ritual slaughterer. His wife Miriam was a strong, independent and intelligent woman who ran the home and worked alongside her husband as a Shochtke, a job not typically held by a woman, though she certainly did not let that affect her choices.

A street in Krakow before 1915, a postcard from the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

In the early 1930s, with the rise of the Nazi party, Miriam felt a dangerous spark in the air. She felt instinctively unsettled by the extreme shifts in the political climate and could sense that it was only a matter of time before life would change forever in her hometown of Krakow.

Her intuitions proved undeniably correct when she was out in town running errands and faced a violent altercation with a Polish police officer. The officer shoved Miriam to the ground and shouted anti-Semitic slurs at her as she struggled to right herself.

That same day, Miriam decided her family was no longer safe in Poland and took it upon herself to remove them from the unknown dangers that lay ahead. She gathered every valuable she had in her possession and arranged for a truck to take her family from their home in Krakow over the Russian border to what she believed would be a safe location.  She begged her eight siblings who were also living in Europe to join her, to escape from the horrors that lay ahead but they refused, believing that it was just a passing phase that would fade into the pages of history.

Miriam, her husband, and five of their six children set out to start their new life in Russia. Leibish, their eldest son, was left behind to continue his religious studies in Yeshiva, a decision that ultimately led to his untimely death. When the Nazis invaded, the students were taken out to the courtyard, where they were shot. Leibish was among them.

The family made their way across the border, believing they had left their troubles behind – but trouble caught up with them when the war reached the Russian front. Over 200,000 Jews in Russia, Miriam, Yisroel and their children among them, were torn from their homes and sent to a Siberian work camp.  In this desolate, wintery wasteland, they were forced to fend for themselves. Hundreds of people found themselves living in the same building with nothing but a sheet to divide the spaces between families.

Yisroel was immediately singled out for suspicious activity as a practicing rabbi. He was separated from his family, imprisoned, and forced into a prison work crew where he was subjected to physical labor: chopping and collecting wood for the military.

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Miriam took the remaining valuables she had left after paying for passage to Russia and used them to barter with the local officials for wood to feed the fire in the stove in their building. That fire was the only thing that prevented the people living under that roof from freezing to death.

Yechiel, as the oldest remaining son, quickly became the man of the house.  With a mother and four siblings to protect and feed, he put his looks and talent for languages to work for him. Yechiel would wake up at the crack of dawn, put on what little warm clothing he had and hike for hours to a food distribution point where he would pose as a Russian citizen, standing in endless lines in the cold in the hopes of bringing home a hunk of dry bread to feed his starving family.

On the days when he actually managed to get a piece of bread, he faced a treacherous walk back to his building where he was forced to contend, not only with the freezing temperatures but also with muggers and vandals on the road who would accost him and steal his meager rations putting his hours of effort to waste. Beyond the stale bread, the family only ate what they could scrounge up from the fallow fields, usually a lone potato or forgotten onion that they would use to make a watery soup that could feed the crowd living in their shared space.

The Hecht (Firer) Family after their safe arrival in New York City. Miriam and Yisroel are on the left. Yechiel is in the top row standing next to Miriam. Courtesy of Ro Oranim

It was in this way that the Firer family survived the war – on instinct, with endless determination and resistance against those who had left them for dead. After the war, the family managed to reconnect with Yisroel and, after a few months in a displaced person camp where Yechiel and his brother were treated for exposure to Tuberculosis, with their papers proving their Polish citizenship, the Firer family was offered passage to either Palestine or America. Miriam was through with the idea of pioneering and the family chose to join her brother who had emigrated from Poland to New York City in 1920. When they arrived in America, grieving and broken from the horrors they had faced, the family changed their surname to Hecht, Yisroel’s mother’s maiden name, to avoid the associations the word Firer could bring up.

Yechiel Hecht and his new bride, Judith. Courtesy of Ro Oranim

The Hecht family reestablished themselves and built a new life in America. Yechiel got married, had five children, 26 grandchildren and an ever-growing number of great-grandchildren. He never forgot his experiences in the war and, until the day he died, he held a great appreciation for a basic piece of bread and a simple potato which graced his table at every meal so he could say a blessing on the very items that spared his life in the frozen tundra of Siberia.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

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